The importance of non-striving

Published by Olivier Devroede on

As you will see with practice, in the meditative domain, the best way to achieve your own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement toward your goals will take place by itself. This move­ment becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to happen within you.

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Jon Kabat-Zinn on non-striving

Non Striving is probably the attitude that I struggle the most with. Most probably because I’m an intellectual type of person and, well, non-striving doesn’t make a lot of sense.

So, let me take you through my comprehension of this topic. But to understand why we need non striving, I need to explain a few things first. I’ll need to take you on a tangent through the aim of meditation to learn how non-striving is an essential component in getting to this result.

What is the aim of meditation?

The meaning of life is happiness. That is an easy question. Finding what makes us truly happy is what is the true challenge.

Paraphrase of the 14th Dalai Lama

The ultimate goal of of meditation is happiness.

Happiness is indeed the ultimate goal of meditation according to the Buddha. Actually, the Tibetan Buddhists take happiness as the meaning of life itself.

It’s not only the ultimate goal, but they are talking about ultimate happiness. And by ultimate happiness, they mean happiness that cannot be perturbed by the unavoidable ups and downs of life. It is a kind of happiness that is not dependent of what happens in the external world. It is happiness that comes from within.

But is that even possible?

Frankly, I do not have a clue. Nobody knows, unless those that have done it I guess.

But one thing is for sure, meditation has made me a happier person. So I have some indication that they at least point in the direct direction.

I would even go further and assert that if meditation is not making you a happier person, why continue doing it? To me, there is no point to it at all if there is not benefit. And in my life, meditation has tremendous benefit.

Happiness by Willem Zylstra

How can we achieve lasting happiness?

The second part of the quote by the Dalai Lama, says that it is much more difficult to find what makes us happy.

Most people strive for wealth and fame. Or they try to remain young and attractive. Or gain power and influence. And all of these things can give a direction to our life and satisfaction when we achieve them.

But the joy we experience tends to fade quickly. We are pre-disposed through evolution to quickly lose our interest once we have achieved what we wanted. Ready for the next thing. Never satisfied.

Our ancestors needed this to survive, so it is a helpful quality.

But it is not meant to make us happy. It won’t.

So what do the Buddhists propose as an antidote? They say that in order to become truly happy, we need to understand the nature of this world. To really comprehend that we will stay dissatisfied when we pursue our hedonic pleasure.

The solution is in loving and caring for each other.

It does not come as a surprise, does it? All world religions say this.

But this is easier said than done. It takes just ten minutes of reading a newspaper that we are far from achieving this lofty goal. How does this come?

From what I see from my own meditation path, it comes from forgetting. We hear some interesting theory and think we should live our lives according to it, and the next day, we even forgot that we even read it.

So we need to habituate our minds over and over to a certain thought. Much like learning to read or riding a bike. Through repetition we acquire a new skill.

But although we have an ultimate goal in mind like learning to read or bike, we do not really focus on it to get to it. Instead, we just do the practices and when we practised enough, we get our new skill.

So, in a sense, non-striving is embedded in our earlies learning experiences.

Let’s see if it makes sense psychologically.

Strive by Whit Andrews

Non-striving explained neurologically

Modern theories of the mind do not think that we are one person. The Modularity of mind theory posits that a mind may be composed of innate neural structures or mental modules which have distinct, established, and evolutionarily developed functions.

In simple terms, it means that the mind is composed of different part that can act somewhat independent of each other. This is a modern concept of the sub-conscious.

So you might decide that you will stop eating cookies, but another part of your mind does not necessarily agree with that.

The problem is that we have no idea of everything that goes on in our sub-conscious.

Now, how does all this relate to happiness and non-striving?

As noted above, we self sabotage ourself because our mind has different component, called modules, that do not always do what ‘we’ want. They act from an evolutionary programming.

So the trick to stay on track is to convince more and more of the parts of our mind that this is in their best interest. In other words, we have to unify the mind around our conscious goals.

Unfortunately for us, this is not something we can just force upon the subconscious mind. It does not work like this. If it would, we would have been happy since a long time.

No, the subconscious mind aligns form itself. You cannot coerce it to do what you want.

Sometimes, mind training is likened to training a horse. The first thing you do with an untrained horse is attaching it to a long rope.

The horse will inevitably get to the end of the rope and start to pull on it. The only thing you need to do it to not loosen the rope. The horse will make all kinds of strange jumps and noises. He will not want to give in.

But after a couple of days of this training, the horse understands that it is useless and agrees with the boundaries of the rope and the lead of the driver.

All of this was done by just keeping steadfast but without trying to tell the horse to calm down. No, the horse does it on its won accord. That is precisely non-striving.

So our mind modules are like wild stallions. We try do do something like quit smoking or start meditating and some part of our mind would rather watch TV or have a cigarette.

So we need to train the mind. We need to keep coming back to the breath in meditation. But no more than that. We keep the rope of mindfulness long enough so that the mind has some leeway an when it jumps, we gently bring it back.

We do not tell it what to do. No, we can encourage it to stay calm (through setting an intention) but in the end, we do not need to do anything. Just watch the breath. Pure non-striving.

Non-striving is very active

Indeed, we need to know what parts of our experience we need to let go, and which one to control. As I explain in my article with tips to improve your meditation, meditation is very active.

You need to have a clear goal of what you want to achieve and know how to get there. Next, you set out an intention to do whatever needs to be done, and then do just that.

But what needs to be done is not striving for results. It is doing the exercises and trusting that the process will take us where we need to go.

The only advise that one can give give is: convince yourself that meditation has benefit for you and from that moment on, do not look back. Do the practise.

“All of us go through the same shenanigans,” he said after a long pause. “The only way to overcome them is to persist in acting like a warrior. The rest comes of itself and by itself.”

Don Juan (from Carlos Castaneda)

Featured image by Michael Gwyther-Jones

Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.